Becoming a Threat: The Healing Power of Collective Protest

by Piper Anderson I’m sitting in the back of a police car on my way to Brooklyn Central Booking after spending a night in the 77th preci...

by Piper Anderson

I’m sitting in the back of a police car on my way to Brooklyn Central Booking after spending a night in the 77th precinct in Crown Heights. Cop sitting on the front passenger side, barely turns to me as he sweetly chides, “You know what your problem is, Piper? You think too much.”

I was struck by the familiarity with which he said my name. I frowned and looked at him closely for a moment, trying to place his face. Certain that I didn’t know him, I replied, “Actually, I think the problem is most people don’t think enough.”

The night before I was at a fundraiser held at the prison abolition organization, Critical Resistance, with other artists and activists. It was months before the 2003 Republican National Convention and police presence on Atlantic Avenue near the Critical Resistance offices had recently been ramped up.

Just before midnight, two cops arrived in plain clothes demanding to enter the space. Their entry was blocked as we invoked our rights and told them they could not enter. After the cops pulled one person out onto the street, we began to spill out onto the sidewalk to witness and question the arrest. Next, I remember a chemical agent sprayed into my eyes. Everything went black. Within seconds the entire block was filled with police cars. Next, I remember being on my hands and knees as three officers slammed their fists and batons into my head, neck, and back. A patch of hair was ripped from my head. Above me, I could hear an officer repeat, “Stop resisting. Stop resisting.”

On the night of November 16, 2003, I was arrested along with seven other people of color and countless others were assaulted by police who responded from at least four different precincts.

Eleven years later, on a Monday night in November, the grand jury in Ferguson decided not to indict Darren Wilson for murdering Michael Brown. Without another thought I joined thousands in the streets of New York marching in protest. Around me people chanted and shouted in solidarity with the people of Ferguson, demanding justice for Mike Brown, and for all of the lives lost to police violence in the recent months.

I walked in silence, the growing pressure on my chest keeping me from making a sound. As we reached 7th Avenue, that tightness expanded and I had to breathe through my mouth in low gasps. My friend Tim, noticing my distress, came up beside me and put his arm around my shoulder. I knew he was the only person at that moment who could understand what I was feeling, what was coming to the surface for me. I whispered to him, “This is the first time I’ve done this since that night.”

I don’t do crowds, I don’t go to demonstrations, I don’t protest. I take action in other ways: I teach, I write, I facilitate, I strategize, I hold space for others to heal. But I can’t be in spaces like this, because I don’t trust myself. I worry that I could become a danger to my community if, like that night, I blackout again. What might happen if I get triggered? I don’t ever want to find out. But this night was different. This night I needed to be there. I needed to stand with my people. I had let the State convince me that I was a menace, that the violence inflicted upon me was my fault had always been my fault. That in choosing to resist injustice, I had brought violence on myself.

I had policed myself long enough.

I would get to Time Square even if I had to crawl, scream, cry, and heave with each step. And as if answering my challenge, my body began to resurrect the past. I became hyper-aware of anything at my back. Sudden sounds and movements behind me made my muscles clench in preparation for a blow, my peripheral vision made everything seems closer and more menacing, my stomach muscles cramped into a knot. So I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I noticed every bodily sensation. I reminded myself I was here, that I had a right to be here. I leaned on every tool I had ever learned to manage and heal trauma over the last 15 years.

My dance with trauma didn’t begin that night in Brooklyn 11 years ago. It began on the streets of Philadelphia. It began with growing up in a family where the cycle of violence was slow, insidious, and disorienting. It began and continued with witnessing police take my family members away, beat black kids in the street while we stood by, and swallowed contempt. It built in fury when I left Philly to attend college in Austin, TX and my body began to erupt into paralyzing attacks of anxiety, flashbacks to memories that had long lay buried in self protection, and dissociative episodes so blinding I nearly walked out into oncoming traffic one afternoon near my college campus.

It began when I was admitted to St David’s Hospital with a psychiatrist who was quick and decisive in his over-zealous diagnosis of a 19 year old Black Girl, just one day into a ten day in-patient stay in a psychiatric ward: Depression/Bi-polar disorder/PTSD/Anxiety Disorder. Long after other clinicians confirmed that I was mostly misdiagnosed, I spent many years afraid of all of those labels; waiting for them to pop out of me like a demon devouring everyone around me. So I worked really hard to be normal: to be calm and approachable, to make my suffering palatable. To hide in plain sight and never reveal what might be hiding beneath the surface. I policed myself.

Like the Incredible Hulk that Darren Wilson claimed to see in Mike Brown. I wanted to protect the people around me from the beast I might become if “triggered”. For a while I thought I succeeded, until that night in 2003 when I blacked out and only remember being subdued by police yelling, "Stop resisting," and then later being told that “I think too much”. As if my thoughts and my ability to understand white supremacy and its favorite apparatus of dehumanization—violence—were the reason that I was locked in the back of a police car. But it wasn’t my thoughts that got me in trouble that night.

It was the way that a lifetime of institutional violence had shaped me.

Institutional violence demands that its victims be contrite, that we not only die on our knees with our hands raised in the air, but that we silently disappear accepting our fate. That was in effect, President Obama’s message to us on Monday, November 24th following the non-indictment, when he told us to respect the grand jury’s decision even if we didn’t agree with it. But our ability to organize, to resist, to strategize and demand justice is the only thing that will save us.

When it comes to healing trauma, building resilience is an essential component of reclaiming selfhood. We are claiming our right to exist by fighting to end state violence. As James Baldwin writes, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim ceases to be a victim: he or she becomes a threat.”

We must resist together, placing our hearts and bodies on the line for each other, for our humanity, despite what a violently oppressive system would have us believe—that we are demons deserving of our fate.

We must resist. We can never stop resisting. It is the path to liberation. It is what makes true collective healing possible.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Piper Anderson is a writer, educator, and community arts practitioner. She has dedicated her life to creating transformative spaces for community building, dialogue, and social justice. You may find out more about her writing and work at You can also follow her on Twitter (@PiperAnderson1).

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